Milwaukee Health Department issues guidance for reopening schools in fall

Officials with the Milwaukee Health Department on Tuesday, Aug. 11 released guidance for reopening schools in the fall, applying to all schools within the city's boundaries. Each school must have a plan approved by the health department before learning can begin.

"Some schools, some universities have already submitted their plans, have had their plans approved, now, we're essentially in the K-12 arena, and I anticipate a lot of those are going to be submitting their plans in days, if not hours," said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett Tuesday afternoon.

The 10-page MHD K-12 Reopening Guidance notes that "we anticipate COVID-19 will continue to circulate" as the 2020-2021 school year begins, and "students, teachers and other school staff will be at risk for transmitting and acquiring infection." Health officials said screening is essential for any hybrid or in-person learning, and if staff or students are not well, they must remain at home until cleared.

"Reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic is a complex process, as there must be many considerations not only for safety but additional circumstances involving economic hardships, social isolation and nutritional and developmental wellness," said Mayor Barrett.

With that in mind, this guidance is aimed at providing "policies, best practices and strategies schools must implement and recommendations they should consider to optimize education, promote health and safety while mitigating risk throughout the school year."

The guidance notes that required health practices must be implemented at all Milwaukee public, charter, choice, parochial and private schools.

Schools are required to submit two documents, a reopening plan, as well as the completed MHD Safety Assessment Checklist (below) for review and approval before beginning learning with any phase, as listed below. Each submitted plan is required to have a minimum of three phases of education.

Phase A includes fully virtual learning. 

Phase B includes a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning.

Phase C includes fully in-person learning.

According to the guidance, MHD will provide approval for schools to move between these phases, and schools "should be prepared to transition seamlessly between phases as suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 are detected."

Phase B and C include physical distancing requirements -- and masks will be required for everyone 3 and older, per the MKE Cares mask mandate. Masks must be worn in school buildings and district offices, or while riding on school transportation vehicles. 

Phase B and C also require steps to protect high-risk populations, protective measures, infection prevention and screening -- with schools to review and identify a screening method based on CDC recommendations.

According to the guidance, if more than 3% of a school tests positive, the school must transition to remote learning for a minimum of two weeks.

If there's a single positive case, it must be reported to MHD. If there are two positive tests, MHD must conduct an on-site assessment, with the school transitioning to virtual learning or undergoing more testing.

MHD has also indicated schools should be designating a "COVID-19 coordinator," with paperwork for that person to fill out identifying the steps taken to adhere to the guidance.

The health department said Tuesday 30 private and charter schools had already submitted their plans, with Milwaukee Public Schools' plan still under review.

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce issued this statement in support of these guidelines:  

“This is a great step forward for parents and children in the city,” MMAC President Tim Sheehy said. “The Mayor and the Health Department have worked tirelessly to develop guidelines that allow city schools to open and operate safely in a variety of formats this fall. The city’s guidelines strike the appropriate balance between the health and safety needs of students, teachers and families with the educational, psychological and developmental needs of a generation of young people in our city.”

The guidelines announced by the Mayor today provide protocols to allow schools to reopen this fall in virtual, hybrid or in-person learning formats. The re-opening plan sets out criteria for safe operation of in-person instruction and articulates how schools must respond if they experience an outbreak of COVID-19. Schools who wish to conduct in-person instruction will have to submit an operational plan for approval by the City Department of Health that accommodates the safe school guidelines announced today.

“One of Milwaukee’s unique strengths is the way it has empowered parents to choose the best educational setting for their children,” Sheehy said. “The safe school guidelines unveiled by the Mayor today apply that strength in the context of the current COVID crisis by giving parents the ability to choose from a variety of school settings the one that they believe most effectively balances the physical and educational needs of their child.”

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